In addition to her work as a script coverage consultant in the film industry, Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 100 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles that appear regularly throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her upcoming book, WHERE THE PLOTS ARE, will soon be released. For more information, drop her an email.

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INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage

This Month: DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL!HOW TO WRITE SHORTS THAT WILL KNOCK THEIR SOCKS OFF
In the early 1990's, Taster's Choice® launched what would become a successful series of coffee commercials that instantly stirred (no pun intended) the public's attention. The 60-second increments featured the flirtatious attraction between two strangers who live in the same apartment building and who are brought together by the circumstance of one of them needing to borrow coffee from the other.

Audiences loved the concept of recurring characters whose mini love story nudged forward a few months at a time, always ending in some sort of cliffhanger. Recognizing an opportunity when they saw one, the sponsors went so far as to publicize a national writing contest (yours truly was a finalist) and offered as part of the prize package a private screening of one of the upcoming episodes. "Just don't tell your friends," they warned us after the awards dinner. "Make them wait and see." Such torture was nothing less than delicious.

A similar approach to marketing was embraced by Hallmark Cards®, Country Crock Margarine®, Budweiser® and others, providing us with entertaining station breaks that actually made us stay in the living room to see how the respective stories would come out. The only downside, of course, occurred when writers got too clever for their own good, bringing us romantic comedy commercials in which the actual product somehow got lost amidst the speculation of whether James Garner and Mariette Hartley -- and later, Howie Long and Teri Hatcher -- were really husband and wife.

I use commercials in my workshops as an example of the power of brevity, the ability to maximize a minimum amount of space. Short films (abbreviated as "shorts") lend themselves to exactly the same approach that PR firms use in framing a story to sell a product. Given the cost of advertising, especially during high profile events such as the Super Bowl, every second of air-time has to count, calling for imagination and extremely tight wordsmithing to fit a 30 or 60-second framework.

At the same time, a well-financed commercial spot follows exactly the same structure common to all films; specifically, even if the ad is only a minute long, a complete story with a definitive beginning, middle and end still has to be conveyed. To simply meander without a point won't hook our attention nor will it accomplish its ultimate purpose of generating a sale or influencing public opinion.

For example, consider one of Budweiser's most popular recent commercials:

The setting is an Old West street on the back lot of a Hollywood studio. The director and camera crew are frustrated with their canine star because he's not reacting with proper pathos to the fact his human pal has just been gunned down. The trainer, desperate to appeal to the dog's sense of method acting, pleads with him to recall his most painful moment. The scene dissolves to the dog's blissful memory of trying to catch a passing Budweiser truck by leaping the fence -- and crashing his nose right into it. Back on the set, he is now howling with such convincing agony that the entire crew is weeping.

What may look like an amusing sketch concocted to sell beer only works -- even from an advertising standpoint -- because it has all the elements necessary to communicate a complete plot:

  • The Cast: The dog and the Hollywood crew
  • The Locations: The Western set and the dog's front yard
  • The Problem (BEGINNING): The dog will lose his job if he can't project sadness.
  • The Attempt to Resolve (MIDDLE): Flashback/memory sequence.
  • The Resolution (END): By recalling his most painful moment, the dog summons the necessary emotion to make the scene a howling success.

While you may not have the financial resources of Anheuser Busch or General Foods to get your shorts produced exactly the way you’d like to see them, you do have access to 24/7 self-training that can make you appreciate the art of how to say a lot in a little. Just don’t change that dial…

On a final note of comparison, keep in mind that commercial advertising is all designed to sell us on one of four concepts: food, sex, self-esteem, and security. With the exception of food (not counting popcorn, of course), movies are out to sell us on the very same things.

RECOMMENDED WEBSITE

Every year, the advertising industry bestows prestigious worldwide awards called “Clio” for excellence in TV, Radio, Print, Design, Internet, Outdoor, and Integrated Media. In addition to Clio festivals, screenings of the award winning ads are shown throughout major cities as well as compiled in collector editions sold directly through their website at www.clioawards.com. The entertainment value of seeing the best of the best is as noteworthy as the tips and tricks you’ll glean for making your own films click from start to finish.

IDEA-STARTERS

Commercials provide a ready source of scenarios from which to develop ideas for shorts.

  • Pick any commercial that is either currently airing or one from the past that was memorable enough to have stuck with you.
  • Assign names to the characters (if they don’t already have them).
  • Decide what their central issue is going to be.
  • Using the commercial as the beginning of your story, develop a 10-minute script with a middle and an ending.

EXAMPLE: Remember the General Foods International Coffee® commercial in which two women friends are fondly reminiscing about their trip to Europe and, in particular, a certain Frenchman who set their pulses aflutter? What would happen if he were to stroll into their lives again at that very moment? Will his handsome looks now trigger fierce competition and jealousy? Or with the passage of years did this same monsieur consume a tad more Brie and pastry than he really should have?

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Excerpted from the author’s upcoming book, “COULD IT BE A MOVIE?” (Publisher: Michael Wiese Productions, www.mwp.com.)


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